RWC Warm-Ups Review

Review

I will not be doing full reviews of the matches played this weekend. 

With the World Cup just 1 month and one day away, there was very little to be learned from the South Africa/Argentina game, while the 2ndRound of the Bledisloe was an entirely predictable exercise.

Accordingly, instead of a review, I will look only at what we might or might not have learned from the two southern hemisphere games.

Bledisloe Cup, Round 2

New Zealand vs Australia

Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Referee Jaco Peyper (South Africa)

In my preview I suggested that New Zealand is hurting.

I would suggest that any review of this game would start with “Australia is hurting” 

One of my friends had this to say after Australia’s win in Perth: “This was not about the Wallabies winning, it was more about the All Blacks losing – they were complacent, and lacked motivation and focus, seeming to think the Wallabies would roll over and die. When the Wallabies did not kick their legs in the air, the All Blacks were a little nonplussed, and did not react in time. Even with 14-men they just seemed to be going through the motions.”

I think there was more than an element of truth to that.

The All Blacks thought Perth would be easy, and seemed surprised that it did not work that way.

Of course, the Aussie penchant for jeering celebration did not help their cause – it was always likely to trigger an All Black response. That ‘bounce-back” I spoke of in my preview.

The All Blacks bounced back. The responded to their loss in Perth in the way we expect from the New Zealanders. A response that has sent a message out to the rugby-playing world:- “If you want to win the Rugby World Cup, you will have to go through the All Blacks first.”

I will add some thoughts to the message the All Blacks sent out yesterday: 

In 2011 Australia won the Tri-Nations, and the All Blacks took home the Rugby World Cup. 

In 2015 Australia won the Tri-Nations, and the All Blacks took home the Rugby World Cup. 

In neither 2011 nor 2015 did the Bledisloe Cup go to Australia.

There is probably something to learn from that.

Oh, and for the Aussies – In my preview I did remind you of Aristotle’s wisdom:“One swallow does not a summer make.”

What to make of the rugby played by the two teams?

I guess we can say that the Wallabies did try to stay with the All Blacks in the first half, albeit with difficulty. 

But, as is their wont, New Zealand stepped up several gears in the second half and produced a superb display as they simply toyed with the Wallabies.

The All Blacks were utterly ruthless, scoring five tries to nil with aggressive focussed rugby that put the Aussies on the back foot and then kept them there for the full 80.

An interesting little factoid to come out of the game is that the Wallaby pack conceded two scrum penalties during the ten minutes that Dane Coles was off the field and the All Blacks were scrumming with seven men! So much, then, for the new found scrummaging prowess of the Wallabies!

This was also the first time since 2012 that the Wallabies failed to score a point against the All Blacks.

Perhaps the most important difference between yesterday’s game and the game played in Perth is that the All Blacks were able to ramp up their intensity, their focus, and their physicality. The Wallabies, in contrast, were unable to take a step up from Perth. It seems as if Perth was the peak of their game. In fact it looked as if they had slipped back a couple of steps, or more.

Throughout the game, to an interested observer, it was evident that the Wallabies were getting a little desperate as the game wore on, being forced to take risks, but without the increased intensity to carry it through. Sometimes it seemed to be a whole heap of individual efforts rather than a team effort.

An added concern for Wallaby fans is the recurring evidence that the Wallabies cannot adjust their game plan to the conditions of the day. There is no Plan B! The rain was making things very difficult at Eden Park, but that did not give the Wallabies enough reason to ditch their already predictable game plan. When a kicking game was called for, there was nothing coming from the Wallabies.

In addition, the All Blacks had learned from Perth, and they had worked out how to shut out the Aussie game plan. They knew and expected Plan A, and when there was no Plan B, they simply kept shutting down Plan A, all afternoon.

They deprived Nic White of the space and time he enjoyed in Perth, and his irritable reaction was somewhat predictable – he started to wave his arms at the referee and the assistants like a supplicant appealing to his personal gods for help in dealing with a situation that was beyond his control. At one time he was so busy discussing something with an assistant referee that he was left a good 20m from the ball when a breakout occurred. As good as White was in Perth, as poor was he on Eden Park. When he was yanked off the field and replaced by Will Genia there was a certain new calmness and game management that had been wholly missing up to that point. (Not that it made a difference!)

This new overhead camera they like to call Spidercam gives much insight into the doings of the front rows. From the very first scrum I noted that Allan Alaalatoawas boring in on Dane Coles, shifting his line significantly, even swinging his hips out somewhat, which exposed his ribs to Joe Moody’s attention. This was quickly exploited by the savvy old soldier that is Joe Moody, he kept straight for just long enough to get some real shunt into Alaalatoa’s ribcage, and then followed him around and put on the pressure.

Whether Alaalatoa’s tactic was deliberate or an instinctive attempt to avoid a direct scrumming contest with Moody, it was destined to failure and disrupted whatever rhythm the Aussie pack might have had.

The ref did not like it either, and the penalty count mounted.

On the other side of the scrum Scott Sio was not having it easy either. With the pressure coming from his righthand side as the entire Wallaby scrum was folding in, he frequently chose to go to ground rather than take the pressure from Nepo Laulala.

I also though the Aussie locks were binding into the scrum a tad high – they were on the top of their prop and hooker’s butts rather than just below where a shoulder can find purchase. They would slide up rather than hold position when the pressure mounted. You cannot lock-out a scrum if you are sliding up your front row.

Small things, of little interest to anyone other than a scrum technician, but it did tell why the All Blacks were able to monster the Wallaby scrum, even when down to seven men.

I would guess that this game has given Michael Cheika a whole lot to think about when he considers his backline selections.

Whilst I do believe that Christian Lealiifano is the answer at flyhalf, and that Samu Kerevi is the correct choice at 12, I am still thoroughly unconvinced by James O’Connor. My own thinking is that Tevita Kuridrani is better suited to the Wallaby game plan.

As far as the back three were concerned, the Wallaby weaknesses were ruthlessly exposed by the All Black rookies on the wings, while Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett exploited Kurtley Beale’s high-ball jitters and positional problems with kick after kick.

Whilst Reece Hodge is an enormously game rugby player – probably the hardest trier in the entire team, this game illustrated his weakness on the wing. He is not quick enough – he was burned by George Bridge on a couple of occasions. He is a little iffy under the high ball, and his tackling is not suited to the wing channel. He does not like turning on defence.

On the other side, Koroibete had his hands full with Sevu Reece and struggled to contain the ultra-competitive New Zealander. He too got burned by the pace of Reece.

I would suggest that Dane Haylett-Petty is a better fullback than Beale, and that Beale is a better wing than Reece Hodge. I would think about Hodge at 13 instead of O’Connor, though.

On the All Black side, Sevu Reece has probably done enough to step into the “first choice” list. Boy, he is competitive and, like Damian McKenzie, he is never going to die wondering….

When I compare the two sets of looseforwards against each other, the All Blacks simply outclassed the Wallabies. The three New Zealanders gelled this week after seeming a little iffy the week before, and rotated jobs as play dictated, with both Cane and Savea doing the blindsider’s job when necessary. They also allowed Read to take the blindside at the scrums, which freed the quicker men to roam wide as a unit.

The Aussie trio do not look like a unit that is working together. Michael Hooper will always play his own game. He puts in an almost inhuman amount of effort all over the park, but is really too small to make a real impact in the heavy going close to the rucks. He is much better playing the supportive role out wide. Close in, he needs a bigger man to play off, and neither Isi Naisarani nor Lukhan Salakaia-Loto have clicked with him the way Cane and Savea play off each other.

Naisarani does not seem to be of real international class as an 8. He does some good things and can carry well, but disappears in the wider game.

In truth, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto did not have a good run at Eden Park. He made zero impact with the ball in hand, getting monstered by the All Black defenders, and then he lacked the awareness and pace to defend behind his back division. He let George Bridge burn him off like the sun rids my little village of the early morning mist.

My final thought on this game?

This must be as near as it gets to the best team that Australia can field, and it was not good enough for the focussed and angry All Blacks. When I look at the rest of the Aussie squad, it just does not seem to contain anybody that can make a significant difference in the starting line-up, nor off the bench. The Aussie talent pool seems a little shallow.

On the All Black side? They were playing without a number of potentially key players. Ryan Crotty, Ben Smith, Liam Squire, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, to name a few. They do have some very good players sitting on the sidelines. That is the kind of depth any team would love to have when the World Cup kicks off.

Oh, and I thought Beauden Barrett simply reinforced that he is the best flyhalf available to New Zealand at the moment. When Mo’unga went off, Barrett took over and there was an immediate sense of “go forward” in the All Black team. From my perspective, Barrett should start all Tests, with Mo’unga used as an impact player off the bench.

Some Players:

Aaron Smith: I thought he was back at his best.

George Bridge: A very good game, good enough for Steven Hansen and Co to release Reiko Ioane from the squad and send him back to club rugby!

Sevu Reece:He can be very pleased with his performance. May just have cemented his place as a first choice for Tests. 

Beauden Barrett:Plenty of nice touches throughout, good on the counter-attack, and slipped straight back into his calm game management role when he took over the flyhalf job.

On the Aussie side I can only find one player to comment on: Taniela Tupouis a monster, and he might solve the Aussie scrum problems somewhat, although he is all muscle and very little technique and can be unbalanced by a clever opponent with better understanding of the angles and minutiae of the scrum. As a ball carrier he brings power, and some very good hands.

South Africa vs Argentina 

Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Referee Luke Pearce (England)

If this game represented the “Last Chance Saloon” for a whole bunch of fringe players looking for inclusion in the Springbok team that will head over to Japan in a couple of weeks, I would have to suggest that very few, if any, did anything to change Rassie Erasmus’ mind. One, perhaps two players might have enhanced their reputations, but most did nothing at all to suggest that they are an automatic pick to go to Japan.

The game started well enough for the South Africans, they dominated territory and possession with ease. Perhaps ever more important, they dominated the space on the field. For a while it looked as if Argentina would be overwhelmed, with the Springboks hammering away at the defensive structures, waiting for something to break.

And then things started to go pear-shaped. The game deteriorated into a stop-start scrappy resemblance of a second league club match. Both teams made error after error, both teams seemed to lack inspiration or real focus, and the match officials conspired to dominate the game with their endless stop-and-chat reviews and discussions.

This was not a game worthy of Test match status.

The Argies may feel hard done by with a try disallowed after what seemed to most to be an accidental obstruction, but that does not suggest that they were the better side on the field. The two teams were equally abysmal.

The Springboks looked like a team that had been picked for a game without any practice or briefing, some perhaps were introduced to each other in the changeroom, while the Argentineans had the look of a club side who were on their first run of the season.

I did not bother to analyse the match statistics, nor the game plans of either team. That would simply have added to the boredom of a pointless game of rugby.

My only thought is that the Pumas should have won this one simply because more of their players have played together in 2019 as Jaguares and thus should know each other well enough to put together a decent game of rugby. 

They did not, despite the captain and their coach trying to be hugely positive afterwards. 

If the Pumas mix of 1stand 2ndteamers could not beat a Springbok 3rd/4th combined outfit, they are going to have a really hard time at the World Cup.

Last Chance Saloon Players

I will not be doing a player-by-player analysis of the two teams. I will simply give you my assessment of the players on the day and those who are likely to be on Rassie Erasmus’ short list for possible inclusion in the World Cup squad, and whether they did anything to suggest that they will be going to Japan.

15 Warrick Gelant:

I am not sure of this fellow. He has magical moments, but there are far too many errors and ordinary moments that counter balance the good. Poor clearance kicks and a kick charged down in his own red zone is not really good enough for a Test fullback. Will he make the RWC squad? Probably.

14 Sbu Nkosi:

Stuck his hand up and said “Take me along!” He is certain to go to Japan.

13 Jesse Kriel:

Probably did enough to secure his ticket to Japan, but still seems way off his best.

12 André Esterhuizen:

Far too limited as a player. There is no subtlety to his play and he lacks distribution skills. If it is a straight choice is between him and Frans Steyn, then Esterhuizen will be staying home.

11 Dillyn Leyds:

Had no chance to suggest that he should be taken along to Japan. Not his fault, it was that kind of game.

10 Elton Jantjies:

I remain wholly uncertain of this fellow. This was a Test where he had the chance to nail down his selection by producing a dominant, assured performance with superior game management and leadership. None of these were on display, despite a good day with the boot. Is he going to Japan? Probably.

9 Cobus Reinach:

Nah, far too slow off the base. When the referee yelled “Use it!” for the umpteenth time and he still delayed the pass or the kick, I very nearly threw something at my TV. He took all the go-forward momentum out of the game, drained the sparkle from the support runners, and allowed the Argentineans to set their defensive lines with plenty of time to spare. There are better options available to Rassie Erasmus.

8 Marcell Coetzee:

That concussion might rule him out. But he had a good session on the field and may well be the back-up to Vermeulen.

7 Rynhardt Elstadt:

Not going to the RWC, despite his abrasive qualities.

6 Siya Kolisi:

Yep, he is back.

5 Lood de Jager:

Did he put up his hand and say “Take me instead of RG?” I do not think so, he seemed way short on intensity and focus. However, we know his value as a player, so he may well make the cut. 

4 RG Snyman:

I guess he did enough.

3 Vincent Koch:

Yep, he stuck his hand up and said “I am available.” It was a good day at the office as he dominated his side of the scrum, made 10 tackles and three turnovers while carrying the ball with powerful intent.. Might well get the nod.

2 Schalk Brits (captain):

He had an enormous amount of fun out there. I would suggest his leadership is brilliant, but his captaincy was not wonderful at all. Did not impose himself and force disciplines and focus on his team. Allowed the team disciplines to deteriorate to nothing. Probably did enough as a player to convince Rassie to take him along.

1 Thomas du Toit:

I think he just blew any chance he had of going to the World Cup. Slow, and ponderous around the field, and scrumming with a lack of technique such as we have not seen from a Springbok prop in years.

Replacements:

16 Siyabonga Ntubeni 

I never thought he was ever going to go to the World Cup, and I still do not think so.

17 Lizo Gqoboka 

Yep, he could go along, if they take six props.

18 Wilco Louw


Two minutes on the field? No, he was never on Rassie’s short list.

19 Marvin Orie 


Nope.

20 Marco van Staden 

Nope.

21 Albertus Smith 


He has his detractors, but is a very likely candidate for the RWC based on his utility role, and the fact that he can play in the easier pool games to give the big guns a rest. 

22 Francois de Klerk 


Was not supposed to play, but immediately brought leadership, control, and focus to the field when he came on. So much quicker than the man he replaced. Still the first choice pick.

23 Frans Steyn

I remain undecided. He has flashes of brilliance and oodles of experience, but seems ponderous and slow. Was burned off by the stepping of the Argies, but his value is in his versatility and experience. Will probably get a ticket to Japan.